The John F. Kennedy Center today named Jeffrey Finn to the newly created role of Vice President of Theater Producing and Programming. Finn, an occasional Broadway producer, fills a void left last spring with the retirement of longtime Kennedy Center theater head Max Woodward. Finn is charged with developing and implementing “a vision for the Center’s theatrical offerings that set the national standard for artistic achievement and innovation.”
That’s a tall order for a storied institution that has failed all previous attempts to rise above its status as a high-end touring stop for the Beltway crowd. It’s also a challenge for a commercial investor whose chief experience as an actual producer is An Act Of God, which has had limited runs on Broadway and elsewhere as a vehicle for Jim Parsons and Sean Hayes. Although Finn lists a number of shows in which he is credited as producer, it’s a common industry practice to give producer billing to investors who have little or no say in how a show is produced.
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The announcement makes no indication of what Finn’s vision for the Kennedy Center might be or what achievements would suggest the direction he plans to take the venue in.
Aside from all that, the notion of creating a “national theater” along the lines of Great Britain’s National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company has defeated many attempts, both in Washington and New York. Kennedy Center founder Roger L. Stevens was an active Broadway producer; he wasn’t able to do it. Avant garde director Peter Sellars actually had a shot with the “American National Theatre,” which lasted one season, in 1985-86. Woodward achieved a high point in 2002 with the “Sondheim Celebration,” a $13 million presentation of half a dozen Sondheim musicals that was met with critical and box office success. But it had no legs and was essentially a one-off.
Similar attempts in New York have suffered the same fate, whether the two times that the Brooklyn Academy of Music created companies with the mission of establishing an ongoing repertory troupe, to the notorious failure of the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, to the late Tony Randall’s earnest attempt with the Broadway-based National Actors Theatre and, long before that, Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre. All failed to compete with the lure of Broadway, which promised fame and riches with success despite the long odds. They also were victims of the country’s essential aversion to public support of the arts, which has crippled the National Endowment for the Arts and its statewide partners.
In their place, a kind of national theater exists in LORT, the League of Resident Theaters, the linked nonprofit companies around the U.S. where theater writers, directors, actors and designers can sometimes earn a living while feeding new talent to Broadway and its ancillary arms.
Finn will join the Kennedy Center’s programmatic leadership team and, according to the announcement today, collaborate closely with Senior Vice President for Artistic Planning Robert van Leer. Finn has a mandate to commission, curate, produce and present “work that puts artists and artistic endeavor at the center of theatrical and interdisciplinary programming and fully reflects the diverse cultural life of the United States,” while apparently continuing his work as an independent commercial producer. He is currently working on a Broadway-bound musical based on CBS’s The Honeymooners.
To his credit, Finn received the Robert Whitehead Award for Outstanding Achievement in commercial theater producing in 2013, and he’s well-known and liked in the industry. Finn is also the president and founder of Hot On Broadway, a corporate entertainment agency that has produced “customized musical entertainment across the globe for several Fortune 500 companies,” according to the announcement.
“To have someone of Jeffrey’s caliber … leading our efforts to enhance theater programming at the Center is extremely exciting,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter. “His relationships with top theaters around the country, coupled with his extensive experience in producing top quality works and creating new, critically acclaimed productions will allow us to explore more original works and innovative partnerships than ever before.”
“I’m honored to be joining The Kennedy Center, one of the most prestigious arts institutions in the nation,” said Finn in the announcement. “Under the direction of Deborah Rutter, this is a thrilling moment of change and inspired growth for the organization. It is an incredible opportunity to be able to focus on creating, producing, and programming new theater for the Kennedy Center, while fostering strategic relationships and expanding the current presenting efforts to offer the best theater from Broadway, across the nation, and the globe.”
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